Cancun – An Overview

If you want to take a trip to Mexico with only a week’s vacation, you might want to consider Cancun. Even if you’re one of those travelers who prefer to go off the beaten track of the popular tourist locations, you might be better off to venture to this locale in the country-especially for if it’s your first time there.

Don’t misunderstand-it’s not that other cities aren’t perfectly wonderful; it’s just that there are many advantages of being in a foreign city that is equipped to deal with hoards of Americans who may not know much Spanish and have little knowledge of the culture. Being there almost makes one feel that its main purpose is for honoring visitors, and in this respect, it does its job well.

Some years ago, my husband and I spent a perfectly fine week there, and neither of us had ever been in a country where English was not the primary language. We did have some opportunities to utilize our high-school Spanish (refreshed by language guides) on a few occasions, but we had no fear of being misunderstood when we were in the main tourist areas. Our trip was with a company called Apple Tours, and we had a nonstop flight which took a little over two hours from the northeastern U.S. airports. Included in our package were two activities of our choosing-we opted for a Pirate Cruise and Tour of Chichineza, and we elected to snorkel and golf on our own.

The Pirate Cruise turned out to be what was referred to as a “booze cruise”, although don’t be misled into thinking it was a raucous free-for-all. There were many young honeymooners, but also a good deal of children, yet a cash bar quite adequately supported the general atmosphere of nautical fun and fantasy. Actors and actresses roamed the ship, telling Pirate stories of the waters and taking pictures of the guests. It wasn’t a bad way to spend an evening, and there were some lovely views of the shoreline for photo opportunities.

Chichineza is an ancient town that contains relics of past civilizations such as courts in which a deadly basketball game was once played, and towering pyramid that can be climbed by those stout of heart and limb. (I have a great picture of myself atop, canoodling with the god who protects it.) The journey was not an easy one, however. Approaching Chichineza via a rickety old bus without air conditioning and restroom facilities was not something advisable for anyone suffering even a mild form of Montezuma’s revenge. The trip was about 90 minutes and the path was through some exceedingly heart-breaking areas of poverty. (On the one rest stop, beggars swarmed those who left the bus.)

The snorkeling expedition we chose went out into much deeper water than I am comfortable with, so I alone remained in waters near the boat. It was moored in about 6 feet of water; the others went out to a depth of at least 15 feet. This is a consideration if you are a novice; the companies’ version of “beginner” may conflict with yours. (My husband relayed that one of the women became quite unnerved at one point and they had to stop the excursion for a few minutes, so apparently I’m not the only one who likes to have their feet on solid ground while dumping water from their face mask.)

Golfing was a blur and not worth the money-it was not a well-kept course, and the temperature reached 106 degrees that particular September day. Yet, we made up for it in other ways…

Our hotel room offered beautiful scenery, and we enjoyed every one of our meals-even though the chimichangas tasted a bit different than those from Chichi’s! We loved going to the marketplace, though one must get used to bargaining with the vendors. My souvenir was a stunning silver and turquoise bracelet which I still wear to this day.

In answer to questions about illness, some folks were sick every day (like my husband) while others became sick only once (like I did). The culprit were ice-pops purchased from a local child at Chichineza; we were so parched, we didn’t even care about the water. However, surprisingly, those few episodes still didn’t ruin the overall experience. Would I return? You bet! It’s probably even grander now than before, but still very tourist-friendly.

Toronto – A Very Good Neighbor

Before a passport was required for visiting Toronto, I visited for a few days one summer. To be honest, I was ill (unrelated to travel) for most of my stay, but still remember it with fond memories. That says something.

We stayed at a lovely downtown hotel. Well, that’s redundant; I think almost everything in town in lovely, or at least kept up and attractive-at least the areas that tourists see, anyway. I had ordered tickets for Phantom of the Opera some monts earler, and of course didn’t anticipate it being such an inopportune time. So it was either “tough it out” or lose the money already spent. I’m glad I chose the former.

In case you didn’t know, Toronto is Canada’s largest city and is proud of its safe reputation, as well as an international melting pot. To give you an example, there is Greektown, Corso Italia, Little Poland, Koreatown and more than one Chinatown-not to mention the Gay Village. Toronto also boasts CN Tower, the tallest tower in the world and second tallest structure, surpassed only by the Burj in Dubai. I remember taking a bus through town and being mesmerized by the overwhelming diversity of cultures seen in shopping, groceries, fashion-and of course, more restaurants than a person could try in a lifetime, even eating out three times a day. (In case you have a lot of time in Toronto and don’t need to sightsee every minute of your trip, you can also get around on its PATH, a 16 mile underground walkway connecting over a thousand shops and services to subway stations, hotels and office buildings.)

We happened to be able to walk to most of our destinations, which was easy to do since Toronto is laid out on a simple grid. It was also efficient, since traffic always appeared to be as heavy as New York’s. In fact, the similarity with the big apple didn’t end there; streets in Toronto were almost as jam-packed with representation of every culture and religion, and bicyclists were so numerous they were even assigned their own lane on the streets.

Unlike us in the lower 48, Canadian currency under five dollars utilizes coins, such as the loonie ($1) and toonie ($2). But, the American dollar is accepted most places, although change is given in Canadian money. Keep in mind that there is a 5% Goods and Services Tax (GST) and an 8% Provincial Sales Tax (PST) on purchases. For a rebate to offset some of that, you can contact Custom House Global Foreign Exchange, the Global Refund, or Premier Tax-Free Services for information and forms.

In addition to seeing the show (which, as you probably have heard, was excellent), we spent a few hours visiting Casa Loma, one of Canada’s most famous castles. We did not take the full tour, but if you have the time, you can check out secret passages, towers, stables, an 800-foot tunnel, and 5 acres of gardens. We also took a cruise of the Toronto Harborfront, which provided great photo opportunities of the outlying islands, the city skyline, Skydome, and, of course, the CN Tower. (This landmark is open to visitors and may even be climbed.)

In fact, if you’re interested in visiting the observation decks of the CN Tower, and would also like to see the best attractions Toronto has to offer, you may wish to consider a Toronto City Pass, which contains tickets to CN Tower, the Hockey Hall of Fame, Casa Loma, the Ontario Science Center; the Royal Ontario Museum, and Toronto Zoo. It can be used over a span of nine days.

In checking into current offerings in preparation for this article, I found that the Mayor of Toronto now uses a hybrid electric vehicle as his “limousine”, and street vendors now offer soy hot dogs. That’s the kind of attention that’s the best kind…diverse and out of the ordinary, but beneficial for the community.

There is youthfulness in Toronto, and not just in the chronological ages of its inhabitants. True, there is a noticeable influence of young fads, but also a positive energy vibe not always felt in urban streets. The celebrity Prince said that the Canadian cold keeps bad people out. Perhaps he senses it, too.

The Greenbriar in West Virginia

Admit it-when you think of West Virginia, you think of coal mines, dog racing and mundane, country side activities. You don’t necessarily think of a luxury resort where rich families used to “summer” decades earlier-and still do. Let me tell you, this is a whole lot more than a nice hotel; it’s a true experience.

Some time back, in my traveling days before motherhood, my husband and I did a lot of journeying around the country for business. One such meeting took us to the Greenbriar for three days. I didn’t even want to go at first, even though it was only a few hours’ drive from our home in Pittsburgh. I had not yet done my homework. When I did, I knew I had seriously underestimated what little I’d heard. My actual visit showed me that I had even underestimated what my research uncovered.

Built on hot sulphur springs that reputedly have healing power (and a rather strong smell), the Greenbriar once was the getaway for folks who needed to rest and recuperate. The lovely grounds, removed from noise and congestion, lent an air to a setting of quiet contemplation…not even considering the resort which was built within its parameters. The building is huge, columned, and can only be described as reminiscent of the nation’s White House. To give you some idea of the size and landscaping, 17,000 tulip and daffodil bulbs are planted each fall, and professional quality golf courses, croquet and tennis courts, and biking and horseback trails don’t even come close to being seen by the casual observer. With fountains, lush foliage, and stunning scenery, a guest almost can’t believe they’re not in a far-off paradise.

If you’re really interested in rates, packages, and guest amenities, I’ll provide a link for your own knowledge, but I’ll use this opportunity to share feelings about my visit. First, know that I’m definitely a resort-kind of traveler. I love having so much contained in a maneuverable area, especially when time is limited. The group I was with had a theme party the first night in the form of a country hoe-down, and Greenbriar rose to the occasion, outfitting one of its magnificent ballrooms into a barn square-dance kind of setting. Stepping out of our temporary environment back into the elegance of Greenbriar’s stunning décor was culture shock-of a good kind. Appointed by famous designer Dorothy Draper, tours navigate the dozens of lushly decorated rooms, leaving most guests slack-jawed and mesmerized. (Some restaurants are so prestigious, you cannot even enter the floor that they are located on unless dressed in proper attire.) The next night was a formal occasion, and Greenbriar again did not disappoint. They are reknown for their culinary expertise, and even offers upscale cooking tutelage (the word “class” does not do the justice to the event) for those interested in spending a few days indulging their hobby. Of course, the pool grounds, spa, sauna and workout facilities were what one would expect from such a resort, but I must admit that I do not remember spending significant time in any of them. They offer a huge range of spa services, including several kinds of massages. My husband had one and swore it was not only an excellent decision, it was actually worth the price. I however, took a private horseback riding lesson on the grounds, and the opportunity to do so was so good it actually motivated me to take up my lessons at home once again-for a short while, anyway.

For that seems to be Greenbriar’s true purpose: suspending one’s reality and submerging them into a life that really is within their grasp, fulfilling fantasies of being a royal, a celebrity, or just someone whose problems are temporarily placed on hold. The price isn’t cheap, but the chance to feel exquisitely pampered is worth waiting for, especially for a special occasion. (Although we went in June, we hear that it is exceptionally beautiful at Christmas, well.)

If you are interested in visiting, do some planning ahead of time to make full use of everything they have to offer-and don’t forget to try the wonderful breakfast buffet at the Draper Café.

For more information, please check their website at
http://www.greenbrier.com/site/.

A Few Days in Bermuda

If you have a special occasion coming up, but only a few days for a get-away, you might want to consider Bermuda. You will need to have a passport in order to visit, but it’s relatively close to the United States, almost always has perfect weather, and is tropical enough to provide a luxurious feeling. But it is sophisticated yet enough to provide guests with all the comforts of home.

Shortly after getting married, my husband and I took a 4 day jaunt to Hampton, Bermuda, and I found it to be exceptionally pretty and quaint, especially in tourist areas that could be termed “upscale.”

We stayed at the Southhampton Princess, a strikingly lovely resort whose large, open foyer with spiraling staircase lent a feeling of staying in a homey lodge or country inn. With the usual amenities of a deluxe hotel, it offered everything a guest could need, including a shuttle down to the nearby beach. This is an important thing to consider with Bermuda; some accommodations are not directly situated on near the shoreline like they are in many seaside areas. For me, that was the biggest drawback, but at the time, my priority was easy beach accessibility. I happen to like being able to run back to the room in case I need additional items; waiting for a shuttle made the trip a 15-20 minute jaunt each way. It’s not a major issue-especially if lying on the beach for several hours isn’t uppermost on your agenda-but if you’re traveling with kids, you should research until you find a place that may offer this benefit. You may not find such a resort offering its own golf course or other luxury extras, health club, tennis courts, etc., but you may find it more convenient. That said, the famous resorts usually boast private beaches with snorkeling or scuba gear rental close at hand, so, once you get there, you won’t need to travel elsewhere if you decide to indulge.

I believe that I took our own snorkel gear, but don’t have clear recollections of finding striking tropical fish in abundance. In fairness, however, I did not venture out into deep waters nor get any suggestions regarding the optimum sites. However, I really was not as interested in being underwater as I was just gazing upon the lovely scenery. Bermuda is one of those places that look even better than it does on the tourism photos. It’s almost unbelievable how the juxtaposition of colors in sky, water, and hillside residences merge into a fascinating picture of a reality that we urbanites simply aren’t used to experiencing.

Nowhere can you see these sights better than on a short cruise in Hamilton Harbor, a must for tourists with limited time who would like to see as much as possible within a short amount of time. After that, strolling through the many shops along the waterfront is part of the Bermuda experience-check out the English influence and the wealth of men’s colorful Bermuda shorts and knee socks!

Nearby, you can take advantage of horseback riding opportunities as well as DolphinQuest, an attraction at the Royal Naval Dockyard where visitors can swim with those loveable animals. I cannot give my personal recommendation on either facility, but I did go on a spelunking adventure at the Crystal Caves/Fantasy Caves located on the Eastern side of the island. It was a wonderful way to spend a few hours once you have tired of the many other adventures that may beckon-not the least of which is renting a scooter. Now, we did not have time to do this, but I heard that it is definitely an experience-albeit it a slightly scary one.

We visited long before the advent of in-room internet connections, but my investigation showed that many quality resorts now offer this feature, along with four locations if you wish to check your email and don’t have a laptop: Internet Lane Logic Internet Cafe Swiss Connection and TeleBermuda International Customer Centre. Remember that tipping is automatically added to hotel and restaurant charges, money conversion is required to the Bermuda dollar, and European appliances will require electrical adaptors.

For additional information regarding your visit to an almost magical destination, check out http://www.bermuda4u.com/Essential/bermuda_overview.html. And don’t be afraid to fly over the Bermuda Triangle; doing so just adds to the fun!

Old Economy Village, Ambridge, Pennsylvania

You’ve probably already figured out that Ambridge, since you’ve never heard of it, doesn’t boast five star resorts or restaurants. It’s a place that, as they say, if you blink, you miss it. But it does have something that history and/or religious buffs may find intriguing: Old Economy Village, a National Historic Landmark.

Last Sunday, my family and I visited; it’s only about 45 minutes northwest of downtown Pittsburgh and just a bit farther from the Ohio state line. Old Economy was the home of a religious group, the Harmonists, from 1824-1830. Eventually members either left or died by the early 1900’s, and since the group believed in celibacy, there no one to carry on their practices. Their goal of living in “harmony” with earth and God in an American Utopia apparently wasn’t meant to extend into the next century.

However, the 800 German-born Harmonists were known as one of the most successful, self-sustaining, Christian communal groups on record. They gained world-wide renown for their devotion, prosperity, and social organization. The concept behind their organization began with their leader, George Knapp, who believed that he knew the exact date of the second coming of Christ. Therefore, his creed centered on a society focused on preparing themselves. Members turned over all possessions and finances to the group, with the assurance they would have lodgings, health care, and enough food to live simply for the rest of their lives. That was probably the reason why they immigrated with Father Rapp to the United States. In return for their keep, members worked 10-12 hours a day to produce goods that were sold. At one point, they were so rich that the American government borrowed money from them!

Harmonists adopted Thomas Jefferson’s advice of placing the manufacturer beside the agriculturist. Growing most of their food and making their own wine, they also hand-produced quality goods and industrial products used by many in the eastern United States. Harmonists constructed factories to produce cotton, woolen and silk (which were powered by steam engines) and had little reason to deal with the “outside” world.

Within the 16 block walking tour (designed in a large square), those knowledgeable about antiques will find themselves in a utopia of their own. The former houses of George Knapp and his son each contains about 7 rooms filled with original furniture and cabinets, handmade at the village’s wood making shop. (There are also hidden cubbies where cash and membership agreements were stashed.) The rooms are simple, with only handmade quilts for decoration and hand-painted religious canvases on the walls. Beds were short, rugs weren’t used, and plumbing was not yet a luxury. Venturing around the perimeter, a guest will be able to enter their post office, printer shop, dairy, blacksmith, doctor/dentist office, hat/shoe/tailor shop, general store, winery, school, museum, library, and carriage house-complete with the original town fire truck and hearse. These buildings are mostly connected as townhouses are today, with private residences scattered throughout, all of which are enclosed by a high fence around the village.

The main street still has its original cobblestones, which horse and buggies traversed down to the Ohio River a block away, lugging merchandise to be shipped on the waterway. Living closely with nature, the center of the area was truly the “village square”, a socializing place for inhabitants. A lovely central fountain, surrounded by exquisite landscaping, fruit and vegetable gardens, and flower beds, can be overlooked by benches-and George Rapp’s back porch. At the end of it is the feast hall, where all Harmonists gathered at least six times annually for concerts, anniversaries (such as the Last Supper), or-as the tour guide offered-whenever there was any “dissention.”

One has to wonder about the lives of the Harmonists, but regardless of one’s beliefs about Communist-style livelihoods or religious “cults”, it’s hard not to admit that their history and their mementos are fascinating. Old Economy Village is definitely worth a stop if you find yourself in the general area. It is closed on Mondays, and costs $7 per adult and $5 for kids over age 6, but offers AAA discounts. (If you opt for the self-guided tour, you will not have access to the private residences due to security reasons.) For additional information, photos, and directions, check it out at www.oldeconomyvillage.org.

San Juan, Puerto Rico-No Passport Required

Twenty years ago, my husband and I traveled to Puerto Rico on a business trip. I found it to be one of the most pleasant and beautiful locations I’ve ever visited. The other day, a friend had told me about her recent trip there, so I pulled out my photo album to reminisce. Once I saw the photos, I did some online investigating to see what was new. It’s now one of the few places Americans can visit without needing a passport, so that alone makes it worth considering, especially for a winter vacation. It’s comparable in price to other tropical areas, and is not as lengthy an airplane ride as to many luxury destinations-yet, one does have options other than 4 or 5 star resorts. It is also family-friendly, and not geared to primarily older travelers or single travelers. Plus, it’s not overwhelmingly touristy like theme parks, either. It offers a wide variety of water sports, golf, entertainment and sightseeing, and with unusual architecture, it’s also like a trip back in time. Although distinctly foreign-feeling, for United States citizens, it’s technically visiting a distant relative.

I was saddened to discover that the hotel where we stayed, the Hyatt at Dorado Beach, had closed two years ago. It had the most fantastic pool and landscaping I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy, and that includes Hawaii and Las Vegas. That was becaue it offered something fairly rare at the time: a river pool. Such a treat is a long, meandering stretch of warm, flowing water that allows folks to stretch out on rafts and be carried under hundreds of swaying palms at an unhurried pace. At the Dorado, the ocean was within sight, visible through the thousands of tropical flowers and landscaping, and, for the most part, no other humans were noticable due to the spacing of the guests. I therefore felt like queen of this little paradise, having it all to myself. Apparently I was not alone in loving a river pool; several other Puerto Rican hotels now offer similar attractions.

From the photos on the web, Old San Juan is pretty much how it was two decades ago. For the person who loves history, they can get a lot of it within 5 hours in this lovely town. Residences typical to what we call “townhouses” line the famous cobblestone streets, and they are a mix of New Orleans charm (wrought iron balconies) and Bermuda color (brightly painted facades). Many streets are closed to car traffic, but some of the nicer ones are lined with plants and outside cafes. I spent a good bit of time on side streets, many of which transacted business in Spanish. Shops were a far cry from those elsewhere; they were somewhat small, dark, cluttered-and hot. I wondered why some weren’t better organized, and was bemused by the emphasis on religious items. Catholicism’s saints were depicted almost everywhere in statues and pictures, along with votive candles, oils, medals, and related articles. It lent a somewhat spiritual, albeit commercial, air to browsing…like variations of Buddha in Chinatown stores and Hindu deities in Indian groceries. My purchase that day was a crystal bead necklace, which I still have. It was a prized possession for years until I saw the crystals one day at Michael’s. It’s still important to me, however, because it was a souvenir.

We visited the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista (which houses the tomb of Juan Ponce de León), and saw plazas, museums and historic sites. Old San Juan areas are still somewhat enclosed by massive walls of forts, the most famous of which is La Fortaleza, which is also the executive mansion for the Governor of Puerto Rico. It, in addition to Old San Juan itself, was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1983. Since the town is a major tourist destination, a free visitor trolley reportedly still carries guests around the area.

“Puerto Rico” means “rich port” or “good port”, and this particular town was given the formal name of “San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico” in honor of St. John the Baptist. Consider it if you’re searching for a relaxing-yet intriguing-get away.

The Summer Solstice in Alaska

Many years back, I had the opportunity to visit Alaska, as my husband’s former boss took a position in Anchorage. Suddenly, my husband and brother in law recognized a chance to live out one of their fishing fantasies, so off we went after an invitation to stay with them. I don’t remember my preconceived ideas about Alaska, but they probably centered a lot on wilderness. It turned out that there were areas that looked exactly like the suburb in which I reside. New housing plans resembled those anywhere; the only difference was that, being high up on a hill, everyone had to get their mail from a row of boxes down on the main highway. Yet, the elevation afforded our friends a wonderful view-of wilderness, just as I expected.

That “main drag” had similar establishments to those in the lower 48, as well as vistas of snow-capped mountains in June. The weather ended up being comparable to April here in the Northeast. I wore a sweatshirt every day, and long pants or jeans. On a few occasions when we went out to eat, our hosts wore sweaters of the type we wear throughout January and February. (As long as I forgot that it was June, it really didn’t bother me.) What was pretty annoying, however, is that it never really got dark at night, since the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, was approaching quickly. Adjusting to that phenomenom throughout the summer months would probably take me years. As it was, I don’t feel that I ever slept well or enough during the entire week. At some point, I bought those little eye covers, but they didn’t help. I’d toss and turn all night; no matter what time it was, it always looked like dusk to me-I guess the room must not have had room darkening window shades. One night, when I got up and went into the kitchen for a glass of water, I took a picture containing the clock over the kitchen window, which pointed at 2:00. I wanted to show it to people and tell them that the pretty view outside the window was what I saw at 2 AM instead of 2 PM…

Asking our friends about their first winter there, we found that they had problems adjusting to only a few hours of daylight, and that the woman of the house, who didn’t work outside the home, only went out for groceries. They spent a quiet Christmas inside with their two young sons, not having yet made neighborhood friends. It was probably a difficult time, and sadly, the future did not bode well for the lady, who passed away a few years later from breast cancer. They were long gone from Alaska by that time, as it proved to be too hard for them to be so far away from family.

I have memories-and photographs-of bear displays, native American totem poles, and recollections of a mixture of asssumingly old-west and Eskimo culture. I remember eating in log-cabin style restaurants, viewing huge outdoor murals, and spying moose around Denali National Park. This was a few years before the television show “Northern Exposure” was filmed, and if you watched it, you probably have an idea of what I mean. I panned for gold, took some tourist side trips, and even saw a live reindeer, too.

The flight to Alaska is quite lengthy, especially from the East Coast of the United States, and prices are higher for just about everything that’s not produced there. It probably is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for anyone, and those who visit on cruises usually rave about the voyage. Therefore, although different than from most of us are used to, Alaska can be a wonderful place to visit. In downtown Anchorage, around and on the summer solstice, there are countless festivities and events which take place all night long. (Think midnight marathons, bike races, music concerts, baseball games, boat regattas, and air shows, with nary an electric light or starry sky to be seen.)

Check them out for yourself; even if you don’t get there for the summer solstice, you will probably still have a wonderful time!

http://www.alaska.com/events/summerfest/story/4704469p-4655446c.html
http://www.alaska.com/places/cities/anchorage/story/4485200p-4463935c.html
http://www.awaic.org/